Caitlin Clark and the Fever Are Finally Settling In

Though still at the center of a media circus, Indiana is on the other side of a beastly opening schedule and has had a chance to breathe.
Indiana—the youngest team in the league—began its season with 11 games in 20 days, and playing the toughest opponents in the league.
Indiana—the youngest team in the league—began its season with 11 games in 20 days, and playing the toughest opponents in the league. / David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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For a five-minute stretch on Friday, in the second half of a close game, Caitlin Clark couldn’t miss. Every shot began to feel inevitable. She went from 28 feet on one possession and from 30 feet on the next. Clark stepped back, pulled up, went off the inbounds pass. All of it worked. By the end of this brief period, the rookie guard had made five consecutive threes and stretched a modest lead, and she had done something that was familiar to anyone who saw her play in college. She had taken hold of the game and shaped it to her will.

It became a win for her Indiana Fever, who beat the Washington Mystics, 85–83. This was the most complete game of her young career: Clark finished with 30 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four steals. Yes, it came against the woeful Mystics, who have since fallen to 0–12. But it nonetheless felt like a fulcrum or sorts for Clark and the Fever. They’re finally on the other side of a gantlet of an opening schedule. Of course, they’re still in the center of the most frenzied, intense media circus their sport has seen in decades. But they’re learning to navigate it, and with the benefit of practice and perspective, they hope this last week may eventually come to feel like a turning point. 

What has the beginning of their season been like? Start with what they saw on the court. Indiana began the season by playing 11 games in 20 days—something no team had been tasked with doing in more than a decade. (The need for an Olympic break made for some difficult scheduling this year for the WNBA, but still, no other team will have such a stretch.) Add in the strength of that schedule. No team faced tougher opponents in the first three weeks of the season, per Basketball-Reference, and there was no introductory grace period. For their first two games, they played the two best teams in the league, the Connecticut Sun and New York Liberty, and for their next two games, they played them again. This would have been a challenge for any squad. It was especially so for the Fever. This is the youngest team in the WNBA, with an average age of 25.8, and one that has spent relatively little time playing together, with only three players still on the roster from two years ago. They had no opportunity to run full practices with such a condensed schedule once the season started. It was a grind. Then consider everything that swirled around them. 

The circus never stopped. Nearly every game was on national television, in front of a full house, with every moment potential fodder for discourse. To a degree, of course, that had been expected: After smashing records in college, Clark had entered the league with an enormous fanbase and unprecedented attention, a player expected to help change the course of the WNBA. But the resulting intensity was stunning. A single foul could generate days of takes. Questions about how the rookie was being guarded erupted into accusations of jealousy rather than analysis of competition. National media figures and politicians who had never publicly spoken about the WNBA before weighed in without an eye to history or nuance. The fact that Clark is a white star in a majority Black league meant that race became a heavy theme here, with valid, important points about media coverage and sponsorship opportunities tangling with toxic pushback. The effect was dizzying. It could begin to feel as if she was spoken of not so much as a basketball player, but as an avatar for a range of grievances, with her teammates suddenly drafted into a series of proxy wars. 

And then the Fever had a chance to breathe. They had four days last week between games—not exactly a grand extravagance, but with their schedule, it felt like one. It meant they had a true day off. (One group of players went out on a boat to celebrate guard Grace Berger’s 25th birthday.) It meant they finally had a chance to practice, getting to work on material that had been difficult to hit in the limited context of shootarounds or walk-throughs, including their defense and set plays. (Another focus was their response to blitzes on ball screens—which other teams have used against them heavily.) Last Friday, when they finally played again, Fever coach Christie Sides told the group how rested they looked. “They were like, ‘Well, coach, did we look terrible?’” she laughed. “No! You just look rested.” They played like it, too, with clearly fresh legs for their shooters in their win over the Mystics.

There was no break for the discourse machine. It kicked into gear again over the weekend, following the news that USA Basketball had not selected Clark for the Olympic team, sparking another round of controversy. But the Fever have grown used to it. As they have made it through the hardest part of their schedule, they have learned to navigate the attention, and they hope the road ahead will feel more manageable. 

“I feel like any team that goes through adversity grows together, and definitely with our schedule at the start, we were forced to kind of build that quickly,” says Lexie Hull, one of the few players who has been on the team for more than two seasons. “Hopefully, by the end of the season, we’ll be able to look at that start and be like, That helped prepare us for the end… You’re forced to kind of block out the noise. Everyone has an opinion. And so it’s trying just to not let that creep in and stay strong together and have our circle be really tight.”

It can still feel striking just how many eyes are on that circle. Last Friday’s game in Washington, D.C., was moved from the Mystics’ usual home of Entertainment and Sports Arena to the much larger, downtown Capital One Arena, roughly five times the capacity. There was no problem filling the building: All 20,333 tickets sold out quickly. It was the largest crowd for any WNBA game since 2007 and the largest for a regular season game since 1999. “I think at times they might have been cheering for us,” Clark said with a smile afterwards. “I could’ve sworn they were booing when calls didn't go our way. But maybe I was just being a little delusional.” She wasn’t. The place was full of jerseys emblazoned with her No. 22, some in the black and yellow of Iowa, others in the navy and red of Indiana. A man on the sidewalk outside sold T-shirts reading “Clark Fever.” (There was no equivalent for the home team.) The noise was tremendous.

And then came a chance to build a sense of quiet again. As the debate over Clark’s future at the Olympics raged through the weekend, Indiana had another full practice, and the players had a little time off, too. (Clark and Hull went to a minor-league baseball game.) The challenge of winning as a young team with developing chemistry is no different than it was two weeks ago. But the Fever hope this might be the start of a time where they can better rise to meet it.


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Emma Baccellieri

EMMA BACCELLIERI

Emma Baccellieri is a staff writer who focuses on baseball and women's sports for Sports Illustrated. She previously wrote for Baseball Prospectus and Deadspin; and has appeared on BBC News, PBS NewsHour and MLB Network. Emma has been honored with multiple awards from the Society of American Baseball Research, including: SABR Analytics Conference Research Award in historical analysis (2022), McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award (2020) and SABR Analytics Conference Research Award in contemporary commentary (2018). A graduate from Duke University, she’s also a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.